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Slow down, you move too fast

So in my other life, I’m a teacher: grades five through eight, at an absolutely wonderful school, with absolutely wonderful students. Very soon, all of us will be reunited. The summer is slip-sliding away, as it does every year. And I’m thinking I speak for all teachers, all across the country, when I say, Make. It. Stop.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been at it for seventeen years. When I used to hear veteran teachers talk about how they’d been teaching for twenty years or more, I’d smile and arrange my face to look very impressed. But secretly, I’d be thinking, my God, you poor bastard! I couldn’t do the same thing for that long! Yet here I am. Looking back on the years I’ve spent in education, there are certain moments that beg to be told. I’m not talking about the feel-good, I’ve-made-a-difference, this-child-started-out-as-a-failure-and-now-he’s-President-of-the-United-States moments (I’ve had those, of course). I’m talking about the moments you sure as hell wouldn’t relive, but never want to forget. And each of these gems has an individual lesson to be learned. Step into my classroom, sit down at a desk, and I will teach you my lesson for the day. You may want to take notes.

In the very early years of my educational career, when I was young and foolish (as opposed to middle-aged and foolish), I taught kindergarten. I’d only had a few years of experience, and that was teaching fourth graders, so going from the intermediate level to brand new babies made me quite nervous. And by “quite nervous” I mean utterly terrified. A big event in kindergarten was 100’s Day, where you’d celebrate the 100th day of school. Sounds innocent enough. But during this particular year, 100’s Day fell on Valentine’s Day–another major event in kindergarten. So I did what any naive, inexperienced teacher would do. I crammed both events into one morning. I was quite proud of myself for having lots of activities for the children to do. And by “lots” I mean way too many.

We started off the morning by making 100’s crowns and using 100 little stickers to decorate them. We counted to 100 by ones, fives and tens and learned “Happy 100’s Day” in sign language. We did 100’s Day centers, including making a design with 100 pattern blocks and making pages for a big “I wish I had 100 ___” book. We ate 100’s Day snacks (I’d had parents send in 100 edible items such as Cheerios, M & M’s, Skittles, and raisins) and made Froot Loop necklaces using–you guessed it–100 Froot Loops. We also decorated a 100-inch snake and played a Find The Dot game which involved hunting for colored stickers around the room, numbered–you guessed it–1 to 100.

This would have been all well and good, had the children been allowed to take oh, maybe, the rest of the year to do this. But we did it in about an hour and a half. I kept an eye on the clock, because we still had Valentine’s Day to celebrate, after all. I bounced around from table to table, cheering on the children, wanting them to experience the full scope of all the amazing things I had to offer. “Great job!” I burbled. “You’re doing really well! Let’s hurry up, though, so we can go on to something else!” I threw lollipops on the tables and told the kids to lick them 100 times. After about ten minutes of frantic licking, one little boy said his tongue was getting sore. I was undaunted. “You’re doing great!” I told him. “Just keep it up! Only about seventy-five more licks!”

When I was satisfied that the children had fulfilled my expectations for 100’s Day, we quickly switched over to Valentine’s, which involved decorating paper bags to collect cards. I was quite pleased with myself for having the children put their finished bags on a long table, because I was going to have them form an orderly line and drop their Valentines into the other children’s bags. This would have gone so, so much more smoothly, had I remembered to check that the children had put their actual names on the bags. Instead of the orderly line I’d dreamed of, there were five year olds crowded around the table, bumping and shoving each other, putting in Valentines, taking them out, looking in their own bags to see how many cards they’d gotten, and looking into everyone else’s bags as well. During this melee, I’d neglected to watch the clock, and when I finally glanced up, I realized to my horror that the bus was coming in fifteen minutes. Kindergartners, on a good day, need about an hour to pack up. And we hadn’t even eaten the Valentine’s Day party food.

I told the children to hurry up and finish putting their Valentines into bags. More bumping and shoving, with cards fluttering down to the floor. I bent down and grabbed the stray Valentines, shoving them into the bags nearest to me. I told the children to quickly find a seat, and I began filling plates with cupcakes and candy and fruit that had been sent in by parents and pouring (spilling) drinks, all the while telling the kids to hurry and eat, the bus would be coming. It was a valiant effort. The little troopers slurped their drinks and wolfed down the goodies, which had to squeeze in beside the 100’s Day snacks they’d just eaten.

The clock was ticking. Panicked, I told the children to throw their plates in the trash and get their backpacks. Half-eaten brownies and cupcakes sailed through the air. The children tripped over each other in their haste to get to the bus. I grabbed the overstuffed Valentine’s bags and tossed them at the kids as they headed for the door, praying that at least a couple of these bags would find their rightful owners. Never had I been so glad I didn’t have a room mother present for this fiasco…but never had I needed one more.

So…what is to be learned from this experience, apt pupil? Yes, that’s right: sometimes, less is more. And more importantly: Slow down. Savor. Enjoy. Lazily lick a lollipop. Taste the chocolate frosting on a cupcake. Delight in making swirly designs on a homemade card for a special someone. Fill your eyes with the sunrise on a lazy August morning that promises to be yours alone. Watch the sky turn to flame at dusk as the sun slips below the horizon. Hang on to sultry summer…to tender moments…to who you are, right now–because all are fleeting. I have taught, but I have also learned.


Tucker Everlasting

So here it is, staring me in the face. My first blog. It’s not like I haven’t been thinking about it, because I have…it just hadn’t taken on a shape yet. It reminded me of this interactive sand-art I used to play with as a kid: an oval frame filled with sky blue and white sand. Depending on your mood, you could shake it hard or tip it slowly from side to side, watching the sand swirl and make different shapes. When you found a shape you liked, you’d stop shaking and just sit with it awhile–until you wanted to make the sand change and move on to something else. That’s essentially what I’ve done to create this blog, what I’ve done all my life to begin a piece of writing. Some of my ideas have been rather vigorous in nature, the product of hard thinking and things I must say, while others have been more delicately and carefully arranged.

And now for the shape of this particular piece of “art.” Seeing as it’s my first blog, I wanted it to be memorable and reflective of me. I felt pressure to be funny, because my novel, I KILL ME, is mainly humorous. But just like in my book, there are other layers to me. I wanted to write about something real and moving, something me, but hopefully something others could connect with. And I could not think of anything more real and moving and “connecting” than to write about my dog, Tucker.

If there are two things I know about this world, it’s that championship soccer games shouldn’t be decided by penalty kicks, and dogs don’t live long enough. Even when they get to be fifteen.

It was May of 1998. On the way home from running errands, I passed the Humane Society. I would always feel a twinge driving by, picturing the wide-eyed, fearful stare of a senior cat, the timid dog thumping his tail in the corner of his cage. But this time, I felt more than a twinge – I felt a pull. I knew it was foolhardy–nay, colossally STUPID, to go in there. We already had a lively eight year old black Lab mix and three cats. But for whatever reason, I found myself driving into the parking lot and moments later, standing in front of the cage of what was to become my second dog. He was twelve weeks old, a black Lab/shepherd mix with a white streak down his chest and ears that didn’t know what they wanted to do yet. He came to the front of the cage when he saw me, wagged his tail, and then went back to his bed and curled up to nap, tucking his tail beneath him, and acting as though everything was right with the world. I decided I had to have him.

At the beginning, everything about it screamed mistake! Completing the adoption paperwork caused me to get home about five minutes later than I should have, so that my first grade daughter got off the bus to a locked door, and I found her crying on the steps – until she saw the puppy. No one seemed to understand why I had felt the need to get a second dog. I didn’t understand why I felt the need to get a second dog. Even though I was his new mom, I had not fallen instantly in love with him as I had with our other dog. This new puppy had a dull coat and a bloated, worm belly, and he was quiet and didn’t lick and jump on us as puppies usually did. I remember all five of us, my husband, three daughters and me, sitting in the bathroom as I prepared to give him a quick bath in the tub, while he just lay on my husband’s lap. Sometimes quiet puppies can turn out to be aggressive dogs, I thought. What if he turns out to be mean? What if having two dogs is too much to handle? Our older dog had seemed less than enamored with the new addition. For a few fleeting moments, I considered bringing the puppy back. I thought of it all that first day, right up until the time I took him out to pee that afternoon, and instead of me having to lead him to the door, he bounded up the steps and sat, waiting to be let in, and I thought with a pang, even as little as he was, he knew this was his house. His. And I stopped thinking about bringing him back. I shudder to think of what we would have missed if I’d brought him back.

I say, without reservation and unapologetically to the millions of dog owners out there, that Tucker was the Best Dog In The World. His mellow, dignified nature carried through his puppyhood to old age. Our house was always teeming with neighborhood kids, lively with birthday parties and barbecues, and none of this would faze Tucker. Later on in his life, when we added kittens to our family, he didn’t even lift his head off the rug to sniff them. The dog was the meaning of the word chill.

There were only two things that would get him riled: the first was when our neighbors would walk their Standard Poodle up the road, and then Tucker would become uncharacteristically unglued (perhaps because the dog looked decidedly un-canine). The second thing was the water. When we’d drive near a large body of water, the Lab in Tucker would completely overtake anything else he was made of. He’d tremble and drool until the windows were steamed up and the upholstery was spattered with droplets of his saliva, and the car would be filled with the sounds of kids protesting and Tucker’s loud, throaty panting. During what would be his last trip to the ocean at my parents’ seaside home, Tucker, at fourteen, his legs stick-straight with arthritis, leapt out of the car upon arrival and raced to the water. Oblivious to our pleas to slow down, Tucker scrambled down the embankment and landed upside down in the bushes, until my father rescued him.

One of the things I appreciated most about Tucker was that he was always There. There when my kids were growing up, in so many family photos: one of him playing in a pile of loam we’d had delivered, his snout covered in dirt, while my three little girls in their bathing suits looked on, giggling. There as my faithful and ever-ready jogging partner, his leash looped loosely around my waist, bringing I love dogs, too smiles from passers-by. There during my unexpected, difficult divorce, when everything I had believed in was no more. But I could always believe in Tucker. And he was There to approve the new man in my life, my husband-to-be who grew to love Tucker as much as I did—a man I loved partly for his willingness to take twice as long installing my new front door because he was throwing the tennis ball for Tucker. Priorities.

Tucker had been around so long that we liked to say he’d done it all. Tucker used to be a general in the Korean War. Tucker knew about the challenges of coaching the Celtics. When Tucker was CEO of General Electric… you get the idea. He was also bright enough to understand past tense, looking at us with interest when we’d say things like, “‘Member when we went for a ride? And got a donut? ‘Member that?” He responded to many nicknames: Charlie Brown. Chuck Brown. Biggity Big. Hot Diggity Dog. Blackety-Black, don’t talk back. When he would hobble slowly in his later years: Rocket. And my personal favorite: Mr. Moonlight.

He used to talk with his ears. Much of the time, they were in flying nun-mode, but when he was standing outside at the door waiting to come in and saw your face in the window, his ears would go down flat which meant “oh good, you’re there.” His ears were damned cute, but they didn’t always work. At times, he had selective hearing. He couldn’t hear you calling to him when he wanted to stay outside or caught a scent of something interesting, but he sure could hear the crinkle of a wrapper, or the crunch of teeth into an English muffin.

One of the most wonderful things about him–the fact that he was always There–was also the hardest thing to accept when he died. I used to try and prepare myself for the day when he would no longer be with us. I knew it was coming, knew it when our family room turned into a Geriatric Canine Center, complete with a small tarp underneath his bed, knew it when I petted him during the last few weeks and felt the stark reality of rib-rib-rib. No matter how much you wished it wasn’t so, no matter how much you wanted him back, you had to move toward acceptance and learn to deal with the split-second burst of heart-leaping hope, followed by crushing sadness, when you came into the family room and thought you saw him on the rug. For a dog that didn’t say boo, the house became eerily silent without him. While I fully realize that people endure far, far worse than saying goodbye to an old dog, still, the ache is tremendous. You don’t realize there is sentimentality in a tuft of black hair in the house (or even poop in the yard), until you’ve lost a dog.

I had been trying to find just THE right phrase to capture the essence of this dog, until my husband said, simply, “he was a perfect gentleman to the end.” And he was, although I do not want to think of him as having ended. I will instead imagine him racing headlong into the waves on the legs of his youth, his fierce love for the ocean throbbing in his blood, my Tucker Everlasting.